Since 1930, Bethlem Royal Hospital, now home to the Museum of the Mind, has stood in Beckenham. Throughout its 800 years of existence, the infamous psychiatric institution known popularly as ‘Bedlam’ has made its own journey South from its original location just outside of the medieval city’s walls. As the city has steadily overgrown its margins, the sometime prison, sometime sanctuary for society’s most marginalised individuals has found itself relocated three times.
More importantly, it has repeatedly been re-conceptualized, as attitudes towards mental health have been updated. More than anything, the museum that now occupies the building is an attempt to recognise this progress as well as to acknowledge how much remains to be done. The exhibition I’ve come to see, The Art of Louis Wain, seems to have been curated specifically to counteract the kind of thinking which attempts to reduce a person’s whole life, their history and their identity, to fit a particular diagnosis of ‘madness.’
Louis Wain first started drawing cats in 1884. Shortly after his wedding to Emily Richardson, she became seriously ill. To comfort them, his sisters bought them a cat whom they named Peter, and whom he would sketch in various poses to entertain his wife. Emily sadly died in 1887, but Wain went on to become a beloved ‘animal cartoonist’, publishing humorous drawings of cats engaging in humanlike behavior. H.G. Wells said of him that "He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves." From the beautifully idiosyncratic drawings on display here, it’s hard to disagree.
Louis Wain at his desk.
Despite his popularity, Wain struggled privately for a long time, both with financial difficulties and with his mental health. Eventually finding it too difficult to take care of him, in 1924 his sisters were forced to commit him to a pauper’s ward of Springfield Mental Hospital. A year later, however, he was discovered there, and a public campaign led by Wells successfully petitioned the government to arrange for his transfer to Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark. Part of that building still exists today as the Imperial War Museum.
Now, however, Wain is most famous for a particular set of drawings, displayed at the centre of the exhibition, which were discovered by psychiatrist Dr. Walter Maclay in a charity shop in Camden. Known as the ‘kaleidoscopic cats,’ the remarkable images depict cats through varying degrees of abstraction, as the familiar whimsical feline figures disintegrate into vibrantly textured backgrounds of psychedelic pattern and colour. Dr. Maclay took these to prove his own ideas about psychosis: the dissolution of form showed Wain’s mental deterioration, as his developing schizophrenia made him less able to perceive and portray reality.
Touchingly, however, the exhibition doesn’t tolerate any kind of flattening of Wain’s character through 2D interpretations of his work. Even the idea that he only drew cats is challenged, and a significant part of it is given over to his less famous drawings of other dogs and birds. The curators have as much time for what they call Maclay’s ‘persistant myth of the disintegrating cat’ as they do for the malicious myth that claims that he developed schizophrenia from contact with cat excrement. Firmly they insist, not only that there is no evidence to retroactively diagnose him with schizophrenia based on his work, but also that it’s not even true to say that these pictures represent a deterioration in his artistic capabilities. In fact, they are quite astonishing displays of creative control and artistic experimentation. I’m inclined to agree.
Too often, people think of ‘going mad’ or ‘being sectioned’ as a kind of endgame, after which the insane person ceases to exist as themselves. The most moving parts of the exhibition are those which emphasise the continuation of Wain’s life and work within the institution. On display are some of his friendly correspondences with hospital staff who he’d gifted work to, as well as a few drawings he had done to decorate the institution at Christmas.
The most affecting item, however, is a handwritten letter in which he asks the head doctor to allow him to visit a few shops to buy arts supplies: “The bilious attack I have been suffering from you can cure. If I can see you I can finally explain all.” It’s incredibly moving, especially as you look around the exhibition and come to understand how the simple kindness of nurturing an eccentric creativity can alleviate a person’s suffering.
Overall it’s a surprisingly heartwarming experience that compassionately raises a lot of interesting and crucial questions about mental health, art and the city. Making the journey this far south really makes you feel the significance of the institution’s history: both the reality of Bethlem Royal Hospital and the powerful influence the idea of Bedlam has held over the popular imagination for centuries. Ultimately, the exhibition makes such difficult issues accessible by focusing on one troubled man and the wonderful pictures he made to soothe himself and those around him.
The Art of Louis Wain runs until 4 February 2017 at Bethlem Museum of The Mind, entrance is free. Find out more here.